To: Derby County (free)
Career at Watford: 168 games (160 starts), 16 goals
It didn’t quite click that John Eustace had really gone until Watford released their squad numbers for the coming year. Examining the list from top to bottom, grin peaking with every extra flappy continental name, there was something wrong.
Of course, it had been confirmed earlier in the week that the skipper had finally joined Derby after appearing in all of their pre-season friendlies to date, but it was only when presented with a paper manifestation of the squad that his departure took its toll. Even when he wasn’t in the limelight – last year, for instance, when his dodgy back meant he only got on the pitch a handful of times – you couldn’t separate the image of Eustace from Watford’s playing staff.
Now here we are presented with the daring new set of faces tasked with taking the club back up to the top table; there are players from Inter, from Udinese, from Udinese and from Udinese, but Eustace’s name, as unflashy as one could get, is conspicuous in its absence.
There’s not much that I can say about the outgoing captain that Ian Grant hasn’t already said in his fantastic eulogy, but the departure of such a significant character in the recent history of the club cannot possibly pass by without a few words.
Quite simply, he was the rock amid choppy waters, on which we as fans could find safe haven during the several years of storms that the club has been through since his arrival in 2008. Those storms, of course, were never really about football. Eustace dropped anchor at Vicarage Road just in time to catch the final months of the first triumvirate of Watford. The fall of Messrs Boothroyd, Simpson and Ashton kicked off half a decade of ownership turmoil and incestuous politics that were only laid to rest (touch wood) with the arrival of the Pozzos last summer.
Eustace, however, was all about the football. While all those around him were losing their heads, he kept on playing with the tenacity and bloody-mindedness that provided the immovable foundations of his game. For most of those five years, the club nary had a pot to piss in, but on the pitch the team, however hastily or thriftily it had been assembled, always pooled together and found a way to play through the obstacles; always playing to the beat of John Eustace’s drum. Other clubs in similar situations have crumbled under financial pressure, have withered and fallen, but Watford always managed to keep their head above the water, and the captain’s role in that cannot be understated.
It was almost over before it had even begun. Eustace was brought to Watford by Aidy Boothroyd as the young manager desperately searched for a successor to Gavin Mahon, the playoff winning captain that he had unceremoniously dumped. Mahon had left the club at the turn of the year during the 07/08 season, with the team in first place in the Championship. Boothroyd was building for the Premier League campaign next year, and didn’t see a place in it for the incumbent captain. He would pay for his hubris. Eustace stepped into a team that was crumbling internally and guided them, just, to the play-offs, where they fell to Hull. Boothroyd had lost control.
His allies in the boardroom were replaced by Jimmy Russo and Julian Winter and soon Boothroyd himself was shown the door. That defeat in the playoffs represented failure suggested that Watford was in rude health, and the arrival of Boothroyd’s successor, a highly respected coach, and protégé of Jose Mourinho no less, suggested the club were on the up.
Brendan Rodgers, however, made the same mistake as Boothroyd. He underestimated the Championship. Set on going up playing football “the right way” he loaned in teenage Liam Bridcutt from Chelsea, a player lacking in strength, imagination and the ability to grow facial hair. This was the player whom Rodgers envisaged building the team around, not John Eustace, the chiselled midfield general with years of experience. He was bounced out of the club on loan to Derby, for whom he scored a consolation in a final day loss to his employers. The way he celebrated the goal suggested that he was done with Hertfordshire – that his brief stint was but a ship passing in the night – but he was just playing the only way he knew how.
Rodgers left that summer with his stock high, despite leading Watford to a disappointing 14th position, and claiming that he had been misled about the paucity of the club’s resources. Those resources saw several of the club’s “stars” leave with him, and put Eustace’s future in doubt. Signed in a period of extravagance, the midfielder had a contract entitling him to significant appearance fees. The club were in no position to pay these, but desperate to play football, Eustace renegotiated, waiving the sum completely.
From that moment on, he was Watford’s undisputed leader.
The Mackay and Dyche years were about overcoming adversity. Even though we knew that any player who performed would be snapped up for relative pittance, the team did itself proud under the tutelage of two young coaches who had absolute faith in their captain. We often heard about the lack of cliques in the changing room, about the harmony among all players. That’s the job of a public relations team, of course, but with Watford, you could see that every player was pulling their weight. Even when the club was flooded by foreign imports last year, and Eustace held only a marginal role as far as playing was concerned, our glimpses of the squad showed that same sense of unity. This is a credit to all of the old players, who accepted the situation and embraced the challenge, but it could not have been done without the strong leadership of John Eustace.
He’s a good player too. Every Championship team needs a player who can patrol the midfield like Eusty. But to pigeon-hole him as a destroyer would be completely unfair. Perhaps his reputation as a hard man precedes him, but it’s rare that he gets the credit for his all-round midfield play that he deserves. Yes, he does that round-the-corner chip thing that has yet to come off (though when it does it will be magical), but you watch this video and tell me he’s limited.
It’s a great shame that we didn’t get to see much of John last year. Competition for places was ramped up, and the back injury that he picked up a couple of games into the campaign meant he was never quite fit enough to take that competition on fully. He remained a presence though, as Fitz Hall and Troy Deeney attested to in their end of season video. When he did get onto the pitch, he was his old self, if slightly off the pace. It seems that Derby plan to use him in conjunction with their set of promising midfielders, having him plug gaps and help bring on the young talent at the club. There’s no doubt that he’ll get more time on the pitch in the Midlands than he would have down here.
The club clearly wished for Eustace to stay, taking on a coaching role in addition to his reduced playing duties; but that’s not John Eustace. A successful coaching career in the future seems certain, but the guy won’t stop running and kicking people – won’t stop playing football – until he’s physically unable to. And we’d expect nothing less.
In a way, I suppose, you could say that John’s job here is done. Brought in to lead us in the Premier League, he instead headed the trudge through murky waters, through uncertain times, and delivered us onto a safe bank, populated by wealthy, savvy Italians. It’s melodramatic, given that all he ever did was concentrate on the football, but it’s very possible that without John Eustace, we wouldn’t have the football club we have now.
Thanks John. All the best. See you in October.
Seriously, though, go read Ian Grant’s piece on Bhappy.